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Carpe Diem: How to Become a Latin Lover [Secure]
eBook by Harry Mount

eBook Category: Self Improvement
eBook Description: Have you ever found yourself irritated when a sine qua non or a mea culpa is thrown into the conversation by a particularly annoying person? Or do distant memories of afternoons spent struggling to learn obscure verbs fill you with dread? Never fear! (or as a Latin show-off might say, Nil Desperandum!) In this delightful guided tour of Latin, Harry Mount wipes the dust off those boring primers and breathes life back into the greatest language of them all. Using Latin lovers from Kingsley Amis to John Cleese, from Evelyn Waugh to Donna Tartt, and even Angelina Jolie's stomach, Mount breathes life into Latin. Read this book and you will know Latin. Know Latin and--mirabile dictu--you will know Wilfred Owen's misery, Catullus's aching heart and the comedy of a thousand bachelor schoolmasters.

eBook Publisher: Hyperion e-books/Hyperion
Fictionwise Release Date: November 2007

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My favorite guidebook is called Venice for Pleasure, by J. G. Links. That is exactly what it does—shows you all the pleasure of Venice without any of the "Oh, God, I ought to go to the Accademia at some stage and hoist in four million Tintorettos; but, Christ, I'd prefer a pistachio ice cream and a glass of prosecco."

J. G. Links's plan was not to show you the ice creams and proseccos (siccus, -a, -um, adj.—dry). He said you could find a café yourself; there are plenty of perfectly good ones all over Venice. The same went for the four million Tintorettos: you could get a highbrow Fodor's yourself, full of dates and architectural glossaries. His plan instead was to take you for a lovely walk around the highlights and obscure golden corners of Venice, leaving you to do all the Tintorettos if and when you felt mentally strong enough.

Well, that's sort of the plan in this book. It would be vain to say that reading it will be as pleasant as walking round St. Mark's Square after a pistachio ice cream and three glasses of prosecco. Lovely as Latin is, learning it is not all pleasure.

The expert on the tricky bits of Latin is Nigel Molesworth. Molesworth is the heroically lazy schoolboy hero of the comic classics by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle, which told the tale of an old-fashioned British prep school in the 1950s. "Actually, it is quite easy to be topp (sic) in lat. you just have to work," said Molesworth.

The point of this book is to make learning Latin as pleasurable as possible, allowing you to gently pick up (cf. Kirk, Captain—"to boldly go where no man has gone before," why split infinitives are okay, infra, see below) the rudiments without feeling like an eleven-year-old faced with a long summer evening full of conjugations and declensions to memorize all over again.

All that daunting stuff is here: principal parts, locatives, ablative absolutes. And you can sit down and learn it all on long summer evenings if you want. But I've tried to make this a book you can read straight through, with the conjugations and declensions, etc. (et cetera—and the rest), sectioned off in boxes to be learned as you come across them, or later, or not at all.

Although I've used all those nightmarish expressions like conditional clauses and subjunctives, I've also called them things like "woulda/shoulda/coulda" words. Call it dumbing down if you like. If you think you're clever, just convert these patronizing expressions back into conditional clauses and subjunctives or whatever. If you're happy being dumb, stick to the easy expressions.

I've also included some little chunks on Roman architecture and literature, but they really are little. There simply wasn't room here to do justice to Roman roads, underfloor heating, and the Romans' million other contributions to modern civilization.

Throughout the book, I have dropped in bits of vocabulary, marked VOCAB. In a slightly irritating way, to drum things in, I've also put in brackets the Latin derivation (derivo, -are—I derive) of certain words and explained Latin idioms that have crept into the language unexplained, i.e., when I write "i.e." I'll put (id est—that is) after it, when I use it for the first time.

But you don't have to work that hard. This book doesn't have all the declensions and conjugations that you'll ever need; for that you can go to the Latin equivalent of Fodor's, Kennedy's Latin Primer.


My father likes to tell the story of the great fortunes made by the writers of Latin and Greek grammar books. There may never have been that many people doing Latin or Greek at any one particular time, but every one of them needed a Lewis and Short dictionary and a Kennedy's Shorter Latin Primer. The Primer was the vademecum (literally "go with me"—a crucial book you take everywhere with you) of the Latin-learning boy. And it was normally boys; it's still the case that more boys than girls tend to learn Latin and at an earlier age.

The book of books, written by the Shrewsbury headmaster Benjamin Hall Kennedy in 1875, revised by Sir James Mountford, Liverpool University's Professor of Latin, in 1930, and customized by me, aged ten

With its distinctive psychedelic, bleached-blue cover picture of the Colosseum and its ancient-looking font—as if a Roman sculptor had just finished carving it into a tablet—the Primer was a popular target for graffiti. With a few deft Sharpie strokes, it was quickly transformed by a million schoolboys into Kennedy's Shortbread Eating Primer. Boys bought multiple copies because primers got so heavily mutilated, and were often stolen because they were so vital.

Anyway, so my father's story goes, the money made by the schoolmasters every year out of a fresh generation of eight-year-olds, and a staler generation of nine-year-old graffiti artists who had to replace their copies, was so vast that the masters decamped en masse to live in tax exile in vast, deep-eaved chalets by Lake Geneva.

If you took a walk by a Swiss lake in the 1930s—the peak time for the writing of Latin grammar books—you could hardly fail to bump into knots of bespectacled millionaires swapping gags about ablative absolutes and rogue gerundives. Here, footling around in a rowing boat in the shallows of Lake Geneva, was Benjamin Hall Kennedy, the original writer of the Primer, in deep conversation over cognate accusatives with the man who revised it in 1930, Sir James Mountford. There was Liddell, deep in conversation over a glühwein with Scott about the correct Greek word for the most terrible of Athenian punishments—"to stuff a radish up the fundament" (raphanidosis, by the way).

Even if my father's story exaggerates the takings for classics grammar books, it does uphold one basic truth: that those books have been in print for seventy years or more, a lot longer than plenty of books about living languages.

In 2004, Kennedy's Latin Primer entered its seventy-eighth impression, and that was just of Sir James Mountford's 1962 edition. The original B. H. Kennedy edition went through dozens of further impressions. And the reason why they went through so many is that everything is there: every conjugation, declension, locative, and correlative pronoun. There was no need for a new book.

So, as J. G. Links says in his guidebook, by all means keep a copy of the dry masterpieces to hand—in his case, the Fodor's; in our case, the Primer.

Copyright © 2007 by Harry Mount.

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